“I am proud of the honor I have done my sire’s memory.”
Wednesday night, 9 March 2016, PM
GM: Caroline lets Celia borrow her choice of clothes from any of her sisters. There’s plenty to pick from. By the time she’s dressed, the girls seem to have finished their dance lesson. They thank Celia for doing their faces and making them look so pretty. They all took lots of photos. Simmone has to be reminded by Cécilia to say thanks. She’s starting to look anxious again. Her sister makes pleasantries before spiriting her upstairs.
Simmone makes a beeline for the master bedroom. Abélia’s belly is grotesquely swollen like a melon, and the sheets stained a violet-and cream-smelling inky black. Simmone just wraps her arms around her mother and buries her face between her breasts.
Caroline: Caroline follows, pausing at the doorway as Simmone dives into their mother.
She bites her lip and advances, gently sliding into a seat beside her mother on the bed. She lays a cool hand on Abélia’s cheek.
GM: The mental response is like molasses, slow and thick yet cloyingly sweet.
I am here, my treasure.
Caroline: There’s a flush of relief, and Caroline’s gentle hand cups the side of her mother’s face, weighing her next words.
Finally, Your body here is changing.
GM: Fear not, my dear. The changes are auspicious ones.
Caroline: She eyes the swollen belly.
Are our numbers growing again?
GM: A fluttering laugh.
Seven is a perfectly sacred number.
Caroline: Caroline contemplates.
A meal, then?
GM: Clever girl.
Fret not that you must immediately deliver your traitorous servant into my larder. More pressing duties shall await you ere your sire’s call.
Caroline: The Ventrue wrestles with relief, shame, and stepped upon pride.
There are so many things on her plate that having one less, especially such an important one, to worry about is a weight off her shoulders.
But its her mother. Her family. She was going to take care of this problem.
She bites her lower lip, tries to accept it. To bite back against that instinctive need to do something about it. It’s all according to her mother’s plan. Part of family is supposed to be trust, isn’t it? Relying on one another?
It’s still an alien feeling.
I understand, she passes at last, pushing the anxiety associated with feeling like she’s done something wrong aside.
Is there anything else I can do right now?
GM: Cécilia lays a hand on Caroline’s shoulder as if to say it’s all right.
You don’t need to carry the whole world on your shoulders, Caroline. We can carry you, sometimes, or at least not ask you to carry us.
GM: Prepare yourself, my dear, Abélia answers.
A new piece has been put into play upon the Jyhad’s gameboard. I sense that its path may soon cross yours.
Caroline: Caroline lays her free hand atop Cécilia’s own, but her gaze remains on her mother.
The childe of Donovan visited this evening.
GM: A fluttering laugh.
Little that transpires within our home’s portals is unknown to me. But you are a mindful daughter to inform your Maman amidst her infirmities.
Caroline: I presume then, she wasn’t the new piece on the board, Caroline answers ruefully.
GM: Even a rival’s pieces may yet serve one’s interests, my dear. Every shift in positions brings with it new opportunities.
Caroline: You would that I went ahead, then? Caroline asks.
GM: I feel like your dad might say something like ’it’s either go forward or fall behind,’ Cécilia offers.
Caroline: No, Caroline answers, biting her lip with a strained smile. Not quite. For him the only way forward was through.
But you’re both right in that regard.
She turns her gaze to Simmone. We can barely keep her from you, Mother.
GM: Hah. That does sound like him. Only one option.
Cécilia’s face does still, though, at Caroline’s next words.
Simmone hasn’t acknowledged either of her older siblings. She’s simply wrapped her arms and legs around Abélia’s swollen form and clung on. Some of her makeup looks like it’s smeared over their mother’s chest.
I think that was a lot of strangers to bring into the house, sends Cécilia. But she seemed to do mostly fine. We could do this again next week. Should do this again next week.
I suppose it doesn’t harm things for Simmone to spend time here, so long as she re-learn to function around non-family members too.
Caroline: Caroline bites her lip.
I would have her spend more time with her sisters, engaging with the world. There’s nothing wrong with coming up here when she needs comfort, or even at night, but she can’t live in Mother’s embrace.
GM: A faint vibration passes through the air. It sounds like a whispered scream, and feels like tears wept upon Caroline’s shoulder, so very soft with fear. So very gentle in its despair. Abélia’s mouth hungrily works open and closed in chewing motions as her belly swells like a balloon.
Puncture the body’s stomach, Caroline, if you please. It is reaching capacity.
Caroline: Caroline’s blood runs cold. But then it usually does.
“Cécilia, can you take Simmone to the bathroom?”
GM: “I’m not sure she wants to leave Maman right now,” Cécilia answers. Her face briefly flickers at the sound, but her trust in Maman is absolute. “What if we just cover her eyes?”
The ten-year-old continues to wordlessly cling to their mother, head turned away from everything else. They might not even need to do that.
Caroline: A moment of contemplation. A battle worth fighting, but not one she really wants to fight now. She nods.
“I’ll be back in a moment,” she vanishes downstairs and returns with a cooling skewer and paring knife both.
This won’t hurt you?
GM: A fluttering laugh.
You could use your bare hands, my dear, and this body would be none the worse. But your concern for Maman fills her heart with gratitude.
Caroline: Caroline looks to Cécilia. “Don’t let her watch.”
You shouldn’t watch either…
She takes the skewer over the body’s grotesquely distended stomach. The imagery is horrific, as though she’s poised to conduct some grisly late-term abortion. There’s a moment of hesitation as she looks down at her mother, but only a moment.
She brings her free hand down over the fist holding the skewer with tremendous speed, driving the tip deep into her mother’s stomach.
GM: Cécilia covers Simmone’s eyes.
Then she closes her own.
The skewer goes in with a ‘thck’ like it’s puncturing an overlarge fleshy balloon. It slowly begins to deflate.
It is not until about a minute has passed that a black afterbirth-like substance starts to leak out, not from the site of the puncture, but from between Abélia’s legs. It’s violet and creamy smelling like her perfume. Screaming half-visible faces swim throughout the dark slurry, their malformed hands pressed against the surface as if trying to escape.
Caroline can count… perhaps five.
Caroline: Caroline watches with a mixture of numb horror and fascination.
Moments pass, but at last she shakes herself free and draws out the skewer, placing one hand over the wound.
She tries not to dwell on the faces in the fluid. She knows what they are, or at least thinks she does.
But who is she to judge? Didn’t she do the same?
At least that’s what she tells herself.
GM: Thank you, my dear.
Abélia sits up, eyes still closed, and scoops her hands around the black mixture. Despite the soupy consistency, it clings to her palms without leaving a drop on the sheets. The wound between Caroline’s hands feels closed.
If you thirst, it will sate you.
Caroline: She doesn’t, not really, but her eyes linger on the fluid.
She remembers. Remembers the moment she committed an unspeakable crime. Remembers the horror as she destroyed someone utterly. But mostly she remembers how fucking good it felt.
Better than feeding. Better than sex, better than the kiss, better than unprotected vampire sex, her fangs sunk deeply into another vampire even as theirs pierced her.
It left her more than weak in the knees, more than shaking with pleasure, more than breathless with ecstasy. It was a pleasure she never wanted to end, that left her feeling empty when it was gone, like the sun leaving her sky. Like being snatched from her bed in the heat of the moment and thrown into a freezing river. It actively ached, the kind of painful withdrawals she’s only read about in the pathetic whining of addicts who didn’t get their fix.
Maybe that’s what scared her about it, more than the depravity of what she’d done, more than the fear of discovery. The fear that something like that could turn her into one of them: just another junkie.
She wonders if she’d be able to stop if she started again. She doesn’t want to know the answer.
It is better used to gather your strength, Mother.
GM: As you wish, my dear.
Abélia raises her hands to her mouth and drinks up the afterbirth-like substance. The faces swim towards its edge and away from Abélia’s mouth, as if fleeing the inevitable. Their mouths chew down upon one another’s heads to make room, and five faces give way to three, then two, then one. It avails them only not. Caroline’s mother drinks them all back down, without so much as a scream or belch to mark their passing.
Caroline: She’s not certain if she’s envious or terrified. Perhaps both.
Caroline removes her hand from her mother’s now closed wound and takes a cue from Simmone, laying her head on Abélia’s chest.
You can open your eyes, Cécilia.
Whatever she saw, it’s a small price for her mother to be up and moving.
Anything for family.
Wednesday night, 9 March 2016, PM
GM: Caroline returns to Perdido House with Kâmil and Gisèlle after taking leave from her family. Congo spends some time showing Caroline different residential units and office spaces available in the skyscraper’s upper floors for her to consider for her assorted needs.
Like most skyscrapers, the ghoul explains, Perdido House has a large variety of commercial and residential tenants on its floors. Many tenants are related to Vidal’s and Maldonato’s business interests, though more of them are not. Even the two elders cannot possibly exert a controlling hand over all of the 40-story building’s inhabitants, nor do they wish to. It is better that other Kindred cannot be sure which of the building’s kine work for the prince and which do not.
Caroline: Caroline makes note of several office spaces and residential locations, asking a few probing questions about renovations. She seems far more interested in the former than the latter.
She takes note of and agrees with the wisdom of obsfucating exactly what is under their influence and what is free if it.
GM: “I am to believe higher floors are considered a status symbol among law firms,” Congo states. He shows Caroline some currently vacant sections of several 30-plus floors. They look much the same as any others she might expect to see in a downtown skyscraper. Renovations will be little trouble to arrange.
Caroline: “A departure from days of old, I’m told, in which higher towers were a form of banishment, a mark of your lack of importance and distance from the court,” Caroline smiles, strolling through an undeveloped space. She mentally draws floorplans as she goes.
GM: The ghoul smiles faintly back. “In olden times, a lord’s hall and hearth were the center of his power. In the era before Charlemagne, it was not uncommon for a lord’s family to sleep in the great hall alongside the servants. There was little privacy or comfort in these arrangements, but there was even less in a high tower.”
Caroline: “Funny how things change. And they don’t.”
GM: “Mankind has always yearned for the heavens. Only in recent years has he been able to make his abode there.”
Caroline: “Is that why my sire chose a skyscraper?” Caroline asks.
GM: “I would speculate your sire chooses it because it is what the lords of today’s era now choose, Miss Malveaux-Devillers. The skyscraper is the castle of the 21st century, and it is a poor lord without a castle.”
Caroline: “Touching the face of God is a fringe benefit.”
GM: “I believe your sire would frown upon such hubris, Miss Malveaux-Devillers, and perhaps state that the finite cannot touch the infinite. The prince himself holds little love for the American Quarter, as does my domitor. Both make their personal havens in the Garden and Lower Garden Districts, respectively.”
“But should business keep them overday, or should they believe their principle havens compromised, they maintain secondary havens in Perdido House.”
Caroline: And has he had much use for it of late? Caroline wonders.
“He’s possessed of many contradictions,” she observes. “Pride and humility.”
“Where do your tastes lie, Mr. Congo?”
GM: “I believe your sire to take great pride in his service to God, church, sect, and clan, Miss Malveaux-Devillers, but little in himself as an individual.”
“I believe my experiences to have taught me humility, through which I hope to have been of greater service to my domitor. Pride may be a sin to all, but it is perhaps better-suited to take root in kings than chamberlains.”
Caroline: Caroline breaks from her mental map to flash him a smile over her shoulder. “Insightful, Mr. Congo, and appreciated. But I was more modestly asking about your tastes in the city.”
GM: “I also find much to appreciate in the Garden District, but my own tastes run closer to Faubourg Tremé. In another life, I might have made a home there.”
Congo also raises the matter of an office space for Caroline. As she has seen, Maldonato and Bishop Malveaux maintain offices in Perdido House wherein they meet with other Kindred and conduct many of their affairs. Prince Vidal, Sheriff Donovan, Primogen Hurst, Mother Doriocourt, and a number of other Sanctified and their ghouls also have offices in the building, some used more frequently than others. (Hound Wright rarely avails himself of his.)
Congo inquires whether Caroline has any preferences or specifications for her office space, or whether she would prefer to leave such to him.
Caroline: The Ventrue seems surprised by the suggestion, and admits that her initial inclination had been to make use of her office with the firm.
“I suppose that has the potential to cause some problems, though,” she admits.
GM: “They are likely not insurmountable problems, Miss Malveaux-Devillers, but there is little reason to surmount them if we do not have to.”
Congo then tells her something else about her new office.
Caroline: “That explains why Perdido House has always felt so disorienting.” She flashes the ancient ghoul another smile.
“I imagine that must take a great deal of effort—I’d add to it as little as possible. A plain desk, a handful of comfortable chairs, and writing materials are all I require.”
GM: Congo smiles faintly back. “You have seen my domitor’s office, madam. Its contents, too, are subject to this security protocol.”
Caroline: “A being of greater refinement than I.” She runs her tongue across her fangs. “Perhaps in time my vanity or tastes shall grow. But not this night.”
GM: “Perhaps in time, madam,” the ghoul echoes.
Congo explains this aspect of Perdido House’s security in greater detail, as well as what Vidal and Maldonato have done conceal its existence from Kindred visitors to the skyscraper.
“This security protocol is unknown outside of your sire’s inner circle, which he now counts you among. Your sire expects it to remain unknown.”
Caroline: The Ventrue takes that revelation in and falls silent: not for the first time in the last few nights.
The system is far from infallible, but it does make assassination attempts or any type of assault require significantly more coordination. Attackers could easily forget or assume key details. It also makes any Kindred present for such an attack much more immediately and obviously complicit.
She knows Ferris would endorse even more comprehensive measures. She’s not certain he’s correct, given the prince’s power. The threat of the counter blow in response to any attack in Perdido House—one that could be carefully tailored—is a strength few mortal power brokers could ever wield so effectively.
As much as secrecy and unpredictability, accountability is important, especially for a ruler. To be the king of the jungle others must believe that you are, and there can be no doubt.
GM: She also recalls Ferris saying it seemed like a coin toss to him whether the prince or the ‘insurgency’ would come out on top.
But his mind is not her sire’s.
Caroline: “The prince’s secrets are my secrets.”
The words are plainly spoken, and belie the pride having been brought into that inner circle brings.
GM: “Very good, Miss Malveaux-Devillers,” Congo replies.
“The next matter I would attend to is that of your haven within the building.”
“There are a variety of residential units available for such a purpose, not all of which are listed in the building schematics and directories. Havens located in non-residential areas may also be arranged.”
Caroline: “I need little in that regard, Mr. Congo,” Caroline replies. “A few concealed chambers within the firm’s floor may be the most expeditious.”
GM: “Expeditious, Miss Malveaux-Devillers, but perhaps less secure than it might be. Were I an agent of our prince’s foes, and had I infiltrated Perdido House to assassinate the prince’s childe, I would begin my search for her haven in a mortal business connected to her.”
“Even if I did not expect to find that haven in Monument Law’s offices, I would still consider it worthwhile to search them while I was in the building.”
Caroline: “I was counting on it, Mr. Congo,” Caroline answers.
“On any given day I expect such an effort, even if successful in breaching the most heavily fortified building in the city, to achieve its goal no more than one day in three.”
GM: “I do not believe it probable that an infiltrator will breach the building and locate your haven within Monument Law’s offices, Miss Malveaux-Devillers, but no fortress is unassailable.”
“Yet if you share in this assessment, and still wish your haven located therein, I will make the necessary arrangements.”
Caroline: “A lion cannot fear the hyenas. Let them come if they dare,” she decides after a few moments of thought.
GM: Congo inclines his head. “It shall be as you wish, Miss Malveaux-Devillers.”
Wednesday night, 9 March 2016, PM
GM: When Maldonato is available, he receives Caroline in his office. Both of the ghouls are not instructed to leave. He inquires as to “Miss Baker’s present status” and states “very good” at the Ventrue’s answer before requesting,
“Please close your eyes, Miss Malveaux, and place your hand across my desk.”
Caroline: Caroline identifies several apartments and rooms that might serve her personal needs. Most are relatively severe affairs, and makes small talk as much as Congo will facilitate.
When she’s brought before Maldonato she’s in better spirits for it than when she arrived. The Ventrue seems relieved by the seneschal’s approval over the state of Jocelyn, and not just for his praise. Perhaps vindicated.
She does as the seneschal asks, feeling perhaps a little childish as she does so. Her left hand seeks out the ancient Moor’s desk.
GM: Caroline feels the seneschal’s hand take hers, then loses all sensation in her body. She does not feel the chair against her legs, her clothes against her skin, or even her hair against her head. There’s just nothing.
Caroline: The sensation demands she open her eyes, she look around, but she fights back the urge. Instead she remains still, quietly listening, not even her breathing to distract her. She listens for the sounds of the building, for gentle breaths of Kâmil and Gisèlle.
GM: The ghouls’ breathing and steady heartbeats are audible to her newly-keen senses.
“You may open your eyes, Miss Malveaux.”
Caroline: She does so.
GM: She sees two of herselves. The first Caroline is a translucent, ghostly copy of her own body. A silvery cord runs from its back into the second Caroline’s heart. Its eyes stare vacantly ahead, an empty house with no lights on.
Caroline: It’s not the first time she’s looked down on her corpse. The effect is no less disconcerting the second time.
GM: She looks across the desk and sees two copies of Maldonato. The first, corporeal entity shares the same vacant expression as her ‘other’ self. Its hand is still clasped around the ‘other’ Caroline’s. A silvery cord connects the seneschal’s second body, ghostly and translucent like hers, to his corporeal body.
“Kâmil, Gisèlle, you will guard our bodies until our return,” he states.
The two ghouls incline their heads.
Maldonato stretches out a ghostly hand to take Caroline’s. It feels solid to her, but there is no skin-like texture to it, merely a muted sensation of physical matter. Almost like condensed cloud.
“A long journey awaits us, Miss Malveaux. If you lose my hand while we are in transit, I cannot guarantee my ability to retrieve you. It may then be some time before your physical and spiritual selves are reunited.”
Caroline: “Then I shall not allow that to happen, seneschal,” Caroline replies.
A long journey where?
GM: The two rise from their feet and float through the office’s window. They float higher. A breathtaking view of glittering cityscape stretches out beneath them, and endless night sky above.
Caroline: If she had breath to be taken, it might do so, instead Caroline simply takes in the vista with unnatural acuity as they rise. The experience makes her almost giddy.
Flying. Actually flying. It’s a dream every child has. A smile sneaks its way onto her face.
She wonders how many nights the seneschal spends his doing this, floating the world. No doubt it is tempting any without existing agendas.
GM: “That man is richest whose pleasures are cheapest, so it is said,” Maldonato states as the city grows smaller beneath their translucent feet. The countless streams of cars and people resemble nothing so much as brightly lit ants, all scurrying about equally countless errands that seem of such minor consequence.
Caroline: “Let it never be said that a Requiem is without its pleasures,” Caroline agrees, hand in hand with him, watching the world fade away. “How many nights spent aloft on the winds, seneschal? I can think of poorer ways to spend them.”
GM: “Enough that the experience is long familiar to me, Miss Malveaux. Yet not so many that I no longer take pleasure from it.”
“Perhaps, should your proficiency at velocitas continue to grow, you may eventually experience the sensation of physical flight. For all the pleasure you might derive from our present vista’s sights and sounds, they do not compare with the caress of wind against one’s corporeal body, nor the smell of alpine air to a corporeal nose.”
Caroline: “I am gladdened to learn that there are some experiences even the weight of ages cannot rob of their splendor,” Caroline agrees. “And that may yet be eagerly anticipated.”
It’s not something she’s given much thought to, in truth. Though she might enjoy her heightened senses and the almost otherworldly grace she’s enjoyed since her Embrace, she counts few of the powers of the Blood as among those to be used for entertainment. They’ve always been means to an end.
GM: The pair’s surroundings dissolve into night sky. The clouds disappear too. Endless fields of stars and nebulae stretch in all directions. Stars and colors swirl about the pair, stretching on to infinity. Shapes seem to form in the distance, strange shapes that tug at something deep in Caroline’s soul, but Maldonato neither pauses nor speaks as the astral vistas dissolve past. The two Kindred feel like pebbles sinking through a vast cosmic ocean.
Caroline: Caroline falls silent, struck by the majesty of the moment, simply drinking it in. For all of its attempts, even Kindred society has never made her feel so small.
Questions about where they are going die on her lips.
Silence is the only reasonable offering.
GM: Caroline is uncertain how much time passes. In vistas so alien, in a ‘body’ entirely bereft of sensation, it feels like they could remain in this place for a thousand years.
But eventually, color disappears from the stars. They’re so clear and bright, and the night sky so utterly black, when viewed beyond urban light pollution. Below, the familiar sight of cityscape stretches before her eyes:
Caroline: Caroline holds tightly to the seneschal’s ‘hand’ for the trip. Even in its insubstantial form, it remains the most tangible thing.
She isn’t certain if she’s disappointed by the return to the familiar or disappointed, but it comes all the same. She starts to pick out landmarks. It may have been years since her last geography lesson, but there are few rivers as famous as the Nile. It helps her orient herself, and drives home just how fast and far they’ve traveled.
What incredible power. With the journey ending, it’s the practical that immediately comes to mind. The first thought is how mundane even her own powers seem in comparison. She can beguile minds, rewrite lives, make men into her puppets, and no mortal who has ever lived might stand before her with a blade. But this… this is something else. Something grander, not simply stronger. Powers that are so far beyond her own in scale as hers are to a kine.
It also immediately begs questions, but as before, she leaves them unspoken. She might have expected another city in the United States. Maybe even one in Europe. The Middle East had not entered her mind when they set off. Who or what are we here to see? Or is it some learning experience?
Their descent promises answers.
GM: Yet some answers are already hers.
When Caroline was an undergrad, she did a group project on Cairo for a history class. It wasn’t her first choice, but she was outvoted. Because it was a group project, she also did most of the work.
But if nothing else, the experience taught her a few things about Egypt’s capital. It taught her enough to recognize the landmark towards which her and Maldonato’s astral forms descend:
Bab Zuweila was one of several gates built by the Fatimids in 1092 to mark the southern entrance to their walled city of Al-Qahira. Zuweila is the only one that remains standing to this night. During the Mamluke age, it became one of the city’s main sites of public gathering and, as such, likewise became the location for all public executions of note. Indeed, the gate was widely known as the forum for public and often graphic displays of power and dominion.
Bab Zuweila is featured in a major story from the 13th century. In 1260, the Mongol leader Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, conquered Damascus and rode into Egypt, flush with victory and dreams of further conquest. The Mongol Empire never lost a major battle in all its near-60-year history. Hulagu sent six messengers to the Mamluke sultan of Cairo, Saif ad-Din Qutuz, demanding his surrender. To stand against the Mongol tide was unthinkable.
Qutuz responded by killing the six envoys, “halving them at the waist,” and displaying their heads on Bab Zuweila. He then allied with a fellow Mamluk, Baibars (one of Egypt’s most famous later sultans), to defend Islam against the Mongol threat. Their combined forces marched to the Battle of Ain Jalut and won a resounding victory—the Stalingrad of its day. Caroline also compared Ain Jalut to Gettsyburg, but her professor said that was a poor comparison—the Confederacy could never have conquered the Union, only made the cost of war high enough to secure independence. Ain Jalut could have spelled a new era for Egypt under Mongol yoke if the battle had gone differently. But it didn’t. Ain Jalut was the first major defeat ever suffered by the Mongols suffered and effectively set their empire’s western border, confirming the Mamluks as the dominant force in the Middle East.
But no empire lasts forever. In 1517, the Ottoman Turks succeeded where the Mongols failed. Mamluke rule ended violently at Bab Zuweila when the Sultan Tuman Bey II was hanged three times from the gate’s vaulted ceiling (the rope snapped the first two times), and the heads of 500 slain Mamlukes were spiked along Bob Zuweila’s walls. Over 50,000 Egyptian civilians were butchered by the Ottomans during the city’s conquest, in addition to both sides’ military casualties.
Bab Zuweila has never thirsted for blood. Until the close of the 19th century, Bab Zuwayla was still being stubbornly barred shut every evening.
As Caroline’s and Maldonato’s astral forms approach the historied gate, she may wonder what manner of Cainite claims this blood-soaked butchery site for their own.
Caroline: She does, and with the fanciful hope that they never saw the finished product of that history project: she doubt’s they’d appreciate the way she framed the report alongside the barbarism of Islam and its cultural incompatibility with the West. The brutality of Christianity during the same period notwithstanding. It had been good politics, and pissed off the liberal member of her ‘group project’ (that contributed about as much as the average liberal to it) to have his name attached. The latter might have been worth it on its own.
Part of her wants to run her hand along the gate’s walls, this battered historical icon. Another part can’t help but note her companion—and her sire—might very well have seen as many nights as it has.
The part of her though that does things just to do them, for her own gratification, regardless of any consequences or even simply how it might appear to others is very small.
A memory comes drifting back. Introduce you to those Kindred we distrust least. She wonders how sparing her sire’s trust is if they must come this far.
GM: That part of her proves all the more impotent when the pair float straight towards one of the gate’s tall spires. Maldonato does not veer away from it. They simply pass insubstantially through. Caroline doesn’t feel anything.
She looks down. The city unfolds before her.
Cairo is chaotic.
It’s unconditionally and utterly chaotic, noisy, hot, uncontrolled, polluted, disorganized, dirty, vibrant, colorful, and above all, alive.
Caroline’s initial impressions may be one of confusion, trying to sort out the jumble of energy and life that surges in Egypt’s capital. Like in most mega-cities, being combative is unavoidable and taking the micro-advantages over others seems to be common. Main streets are occupied with tense traffic and temper flaming motorists, yet within minutes one looks as if they can escape into a back street for a couple cups of tea or a bite to eat. Above all, the city feels like it never stops. It feels vigorous and animated well into the night. Cars go through the streets seemingly guided more by survival instinct and intuition than by traffic laws. The heavy traffic enhances the sense of chaos. Electric lights are everywhere. Caroline looks up and can barely see stars. Lights are on in homes, along market stands, along strings in alleyways, along strings set up by children. Light is everywhere. Electricity must be dirt cheap.
Together with the enormous crowds, the city feels as tightly packed as a sardine can. There are almost no dark alleys. There is nowhere without people. Even the cemeteries are full of people with strung-up lights going about their business and chattering away in Arabic. There are some parallels to New Orleans, but where the Big Easy has a sense of lazy, Southern-drawl slowness that made it the perfect stage for Ignatius J. Relly to chew hot dogs and loudly pontificate his brand of French Quarter craziness to amused listeners, it feels as if Cairo would simply swallow him up and no one would pay the crazy man a second glance. The Mother of the World teems with the relentless energy of New York and the stubbornly thriving sense of life in the most densely-packed Third World slums.
It’s enough to make even the dead feel alive.
Caroline: She isn’t sure what she expected—the project she did notwithstanding, but in many ways it reminds her of New Orleans on a larger scale.
GM: “What do you see, Miss Malveaux?” Maldonato inquires as the pair float past two dusky-skinned girls swishing around in white dresses. The oldest can’t be more than seven, but Caroline doesn’t see anyone who looks like parents nearby.
The insubstantial pair go utterly ignored in their flight. Perhaps no one can see them.
Or perhaps no one cares enough to pay two souls out of countless millions a second glance.
Caroline: The Ventrue startles when he finally speaks after the long silence, but the response comes quickly and easily to her lips.
“Life. Human life in all of its most dynamic vibrancy. The best and worst parts of the great cities of the world. Heritage and history not curated, but actively immersed in their lives. This city feels more alive, more teeming with energy, than anywhere I’ve ever been.”
“It’s not what I expected, seneschal.”
GM: “Some say expectations are akin to fine pottery. The more firmly one grasps them, the more likely they are to fissure.”
He releases her hand.
“Envision movement and you will find yourself in motion.”
Caroline: It takes a moment. More than two decades of life tell her that to move she needs to order her muscles into motion, to take a step. But this is not the first moment in his form she has experienced—they’ve flown across the world already.
She starts forward, taking the opportunity to peak down an alley echoing with the delighted shouts of children, before turning her gaze back to Maldonato.
“I thought I had seen the great cities of the world. I was wrong.”
“Has it changed much over time?”
GM: “‘Mistress of broad provinces and fruitful lands, boundless in profusion of buildings, peerless in beauty and splendor, she shelters all you will of the learned and ignorant, the grave and the gay, the prudent and the foolish, the noble and the base… like the waves of the sea she surges with her throngs of folk… her youth is ever new despite the length of days. Her reigning star never shifts from the mansion of fortune.’”
“Your simple question begets a complex answer, Miss Malveaux. It can be said that Cairo was founded on the paradox of change as a means of ensuring stability. Since the area’s first settlement, the city has undergone a process of continuous reinvention. On, Heliopolis, Babylon-in-Egypt, Al-Fustat, Al-Askar, Al-Qatai, Al-Qahira: she has worn many names and faces.”
“Yet she is a city grown weary under the weight of her own years. The passing of ages has given her the time to witness her own rise and fall repeatedly, granting her the sad opportunity to see her radiance tarnished at the hands of her own children. For the unthinkable span of 24 centuries, she has been ruled by foreign conquerors, and never a native son or daughter of Egypt. This fact has played an undeniable role in the formation of the Cairene mindset, and the city’s inhabitants struggle nightly with this legacy.”
Caroline: Reinvention. That makes sense. Maybe that’s what’s missing in New Orleans. Why it feels so different. There’s a life to the Crescent City, the chaotic and loud party, but on some level it cannot help but feel like the manic final cheer of a doomed man. Perhaps never more so than after Katrina.
GM: “But through all her many nights of blood and change, she has remained the brightest of beacons in a dark and shifting sand, a constant star in a sea of endless night. She may look older in the light, and her children may see more of chaos and hardship in these times, but they know that she yet remains the Mother of the World. And to them, regardless of her guise or appellation, the City Triumphant she has always been—and, by the grace of God, shall remain evermore.”
Caroline: It sounds like a prayer. She’s heard worse.
He need not tell her that any rebirth comes with pain, she knows that better than most.
GM: “Yet there you have expressed another expectation that experience may soon fissure, Miss Malveaux. Come. Our destination awaits.”
Caroline: She falls in behind the ancient Moor.
GM: The two Kindred float through the city’s throngs until they stop before a Mamluke-era monument that looks as if it could be a mosque or palace.
Caroline didn’t do her ‘group’ project specifically on the Qalawun complex, but one subject of Cairo-related research led to another. It was built in 1284—1285 as a hospital, law school, and mausoleum for Sultan al-Mansur Sayf al-Din Qalawun. This fact is remarkable considering the sheer size and scope of the total complex. The relatively short amount of time it took to construct the complex is in large part due to the slave-like labor the sultan commanded (much of it from Mongol prisoners of war captured at Ain Jalut). The Complex was considered one of the city’s most beautiful buildings at that time, and its interior contains the world’s second-most beautiful mausoleum after the considerably more famous Taj Mahal. The hospital continued to function until its demolition by the Ottomans in 1910. The complex is smaller than it used to be, but it is still one of Cairo’s more recognizable landmarks.
The ground, on which the Qalawun funerary complex now stands, used to be home to a Fatimid palace. Many of the old palace’s halls were sold off, and there were people living in them until Sultan Al-Nasir Muhammad Ibn Qalawun bought the entire area in 1283. He had allegedly made a promise to God that he would build a hospital in Cairo similar to the one he was treated in while in Syria.
In addition to the Mongol prisoners who were forcefully employed, emir ‘Alam al-Din Sinjar al-Shaja‘I also called on called on regular workers throughout the city to assist with the project. In fact, he was so determined to acquire a large workforce that even people walking the streets were ordered to help. By the time the complex was completed, it was considered to be the most beautiful building in the entire region.
The Qalawun Complex underwent its first recorded restoration project during the reign of al-Nasir Muhammad, the sultan’s son. This took place in 1327 after a major earthquake caused significant damage to the complex’s minarets. Al-Nasir had the complex renovated and restored a number of times during his reign but it was only the restoration of the minarets that was recorded on the complex.
Later, in 1776, Abdul-Rahman Katkhuda also commissioned some renovation work to be carried out. This project included the building of a truly beautiful Ottoman-style sabil on the opposite side of the road.
Some historians believe that Qalawun never had any intention of using the mausoleum as a burial site. They argue that it was originally meant to serve as a mosque and a school.
The mausoleum’s dome was of great significance because it was symbolic of a new rise of Mamluk power. This later led to the dome being demolished by an Ottoman governor. In its place, a new Ottoman-style dome was built, only to be replaced again in 1908 by the Center for Reservation of Arab Monuments.
The madrasa at the Qalawun Complex is by no means as elaborate as the mausoleum, but it is still very impressive nonetheless. In its heyday, the madrasa was used for teaching all four legal schools that were recognized under Islamic law. The madrasa was also used for teaching other subjects as well, including medicine.
In contrast to the immersed history and heritage on the streets of Cairo, the Qalawun complex feels carefully curated. Caroline and her guide encounter no other souls throughout its vast halls—until they stop at a room with a glass-enclosed scale model of the complex.
Caroline: Elysium? Palace? Elder’s domain? The Qalawun Complex could easily be all three. It’s also the first place in the city she’s seen that feels… different. Less frenetic. More refined.
GM: A woman supplicates herself upon the floor. She’s dressed in a flowing black silk tunic that looks cut from another era. Caroline hears no heartbeat from her chest. She does not turn to look at Maldonato or the Ventrue as she chants,
“Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar,
Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar,
Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar,
Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.”
(“Allah is Greatest.”
“Allah is Greatest.”
“Allah is Greatest.”
“Allah is Greatest.”)
GM: “Ashhadu al la ilaha illa-llah.
Ashhadu al la ilaha illa-Ilah.”
(“I bear witness that nothing deserves to be worshipped except Allah.”)
(“I bear witness that nothing deserves to be worshipped except Allah.”)
She turns to face her right.
(“Come to prayer.
Come to prayer.”)
She turns to face her left.
(“Come to success.”
“Come to success.”)
Caroline: It feels disrespectful to watch her at prayer. Caroline directs her eyes to the floor, listening in silence.
GM: “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar,
Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.”
(“Allah is Greatest.”
“Allah is Greatest.”)
“La illaha illa-llah.”
(“Nothing deserves to be worshipped except Allah.”)
“Allahum-ma Rabba hadhihi-d-da ‘wati-t-tammati wa-s-salati-I-qa’imati ati Muhammada-ni-l wasilata wa-l-fadzilata waddarajata-rrati’ata wa-b’athhu maqqmam mahmudan-illadhi wa’adta-hu.”
(“O Allah! Lord of this perfect call and ever-living prayer, grant to Muhammad nearness and excellence and raise him to the position of glory which Thou hast promised him.”)
The woman’s prayer continues for some length. Maldonato waits patiently and does not speak, though his gaze remains fixed on her.
She raises up her hands in supplication.
“Astaghfiru-llaha Rabbi min kulli dhanbin wa’atubu ilai-hi.”
(“I seek the protection of Allah, my Lord, from every fault and turn to Him.”)
“Allahu-mma’ anta-s-Salamu wa min-ka-s-slamu, tabarakta Rabbana wa ta ‘alaita ya dha-l-jalali wa-l’-ikram.”
(“O Allah! Thou art the Author of peace, and from Thee comes peace; blessed art Thou, O Lord of Glory and Honour!”)
“La ilaha illa-llahu, wahda hu la sharika la-hu, la-hu-I-mulku wa I-hamdu wa huwa ‘ala kullishai’-in qadir; Allahu-mma la mani’a Ii-ma ’a’taita wa la mu’tiya Ii-ma mana’ta wa la yanfa’u dha-l-jaddi min-ka-I jaddu.”
(“Nothing deserves to be worshipped except Allah. He is One and has no associate; His is the kingdom and for Him is praise, and He has power over all things. O Allah! there is none who can withhold what Thou grantest, and there is none who can give what Thou withholdest, and greatness does not benefit any possessor of greatness as against Thee.”)
“Allahu la ilaha illa hua-al-Hayyu-l-Qayyum; Ia ta’khu-dhu-hu sinatun wa la naum; la-hu ma fis-samawati wa ma fi-I-ardz; man dha-lladhi yashfa’u ‘inda-hu illa bi idhni-hi; ya’lamu ma baina aidi-him wa ma khalfa-hum wa la yuhi-tuna bi-shai’im-min ‘ilmihi illa bi-ma sha’a; wasi’a kur-siyyu-hu-s-samawati wa-l-ardz wa la ya’udu-hu hifzu-huma wa huwa-l-’AIiyyu-I-Azim.”
(“Allah is He besides whom there is no God, the Ever-Living, the Self-Subsisting by whom all things subsist; slumber does not overtake Him nor sleep; whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth is His; who is he that can intercede with Him but by His permission? He knows what is before them and what is behind them and they cannot comprehend anything, out of His knowledge except what He pleases; His knowledge extends over the heavens and the earth, and the preservation of them both tires Him not and He is the most High, the Great.”)
At last, she turns and faces the two vampires.
Caroline: Caroline raises her gaze back to her as the prayer finishes.
GM: The woman is a figure of elegant bearing and stately majesty, with porcelain-pale skin, long raven hair, full lips, and white-irised eyes that shine like brightly polished stones under the moon. Some might call the woman’s face beautiful, but it is a regal rather than sensuous beauty, like that of an idealized queen. Dignity and pride radiate from her like twin suns. She wears no jewelry or ornamentation.
Her gaze settles first upon Maldonato.
“Ysed qalbi ’an ’arak maratan ’ukhraa ya abn eami.”
(“It gladdens my heart to see you again, cousin.”)
Caroline: It’s almost painful to look at her. No—it is painful. There’s a nasty stab in her chest that she’s felt once before, though far less deeply.
Regal. Dignified. Powerful. And, it goes unsaid, ancient. Here is a queen who could sit beside her sire. Who not only could in bearing, but plausibly could in might. She’s someone Caroline can only hope to echo in centuries, and she makes the Ventrue feel small. That, in turn, makes her feel ugly.
Envy is ugly on anyone.
She pushes it away. Fights it with rational arguments. Maldonato has brought her to Cairo with purpose. This woman lives half a world away. She’s a Muslim. She’s not actually a threat to something Caroline already knows she can’t ever have anyway. She’s done nothing to wrong Caroline.
Logic helps. A bit.
GM: “Walia ’an ’arak ya fatimat,” Caroline’s guide replies. “Laqad madaa waqt tawil jiddaan mundh aijtimaeina al’akhir.”
(“And mine to see you, Fatimah. It has been too long since our last meeting.”)
The woman’s gaze turns to the Ventrue.
“Thuma hdha tafluha. Yuseaduni ’an ’araa ’anaha ajtazat alaikhtibar.”
(“Then this is his childe. I am pleased to see she has passed your test.”)
Caroline: Caroline is mindful that she has not been addressed by the elder. Still, the fact that she knew of Caroline is something—something that drives home the trust the seneschal has in this woman. A secret kept even from her sire, but shared here.
She supposes everyone needs someone to confide in, and some part of her is glad the seneschal has one still, even in his banishment.
GM: Maldonato’s own gaze returns to Caroline as he states in English,
“Miss Malveaux, may I introduce Fatimah al-Lam’a, primogen of Cairo’s Consultative Council, emira of the Banu al-Lam’a, and grandchilde to my grandsire. Your name and identity are already known to her.”
Fatimah offers the faintest inclination of her head.
“My congratulations upon your recent achievements, young one. Be welcome in Cairo and the Khitta al-Lam’a,” she replies in unaccented English.
Caroline: The Ventrue meets the other vampire’s eyes and places her right hand across her chest.
“Shukraan lakum walsalam ealaykum. ʾamīrah Fatimah al-Lam’a. Shukraan liaistiqbali.”
(“Thank you, and peace be upon you, Emira Fatimah al-Lam’a. Thank you for receiving me.”)
GM: Fatimah mirrors the motion over her heart and replies in the traditional, “Wa ʿalayki s-salāmu.”
(“And peace be upon you, too.”)
“Philip has spoken much of you, Miss Malveaux. He did not mention you were learned in our culture’s language and customs. I am pleased by this.”
Caroline: Philip. It’s like hearing your parents’ names spoken for the first time. She intellectually knows the seneschal’s name, but it’s something else to hear it.
The praise brings an irrational flush of pride alongside the buried envy. All the same, she’s just as happy with their swap to English.
“I was gifted with languages and my upbringing provided me many opportunities, Emira. I like to believe that I took full advantage of them. I find that many things are best experienced in their narrative tongue.”
GM: “Few things are not.” Fatimah turns. “Let us walk. I would share my haven’s splendors with you.”
The woman’s tone is not boastful, but neither is it modest. It feels so different from her sire’s unrelenting zeal or her mother’s modest yet pride-swollen words.
Caroline: “You honor me, Emira. What I had read of the Qalawun’s Complex’s history did not do justice to its majesty.” She falls in behind the elder.
GM: “Majesty was the complex’s birthright,” Fatimah states as they walk. “The pillars you see before you were repurposed from a pharaonic monument.”
“Rejuvenation through continuous reinvention has ever been Cairo’s way,” Maldonato concurs.
The trio meet no one along their journey. For all the clamor of life outside the complex’s walls, all the millions of souls packed into every street and alley, the complex’s proud halls stand empty and silent. The silver cords stretching from Caroline’s and Maldonato’s hearts (somehow, to think of him as “the seneschal” in this place no longer feels apt) trail on for as far as her eye can see.
Caroline: The Ventrue is attentive to the elder as she leads them. “I imagine that tradition of reinvention must make the curration of the city’s Elysia challenging.”
GM: “All cities change with time,” answers Fatimah. “Mine has merely endured more changes than most. Yet my cousin has not brought you halfway across the world frivolously, and there are other matters I would speak of with you.”
“I am to understand it was by your hand that the Catharite faced the judgment she had long evaded.”
Caroline: Caroline gives an involuntary shiver at the memories the name dredges to the surface. The wet tearing of flesh, grinding blade on bones, and screams echoing in her ears. Her own screams.
“He spoke truly. My hand welded the blade that ended her existence, Emira, though it would not have been possible without him.”
“I knew little then, save of her wickedness. Of that I had learned plenty. I believed your cousin an angel braving the pits of Hell—for what else could her domain be—to strike down a demon.”
She pauses. “I suppose all things being equal, I was not so wrong as I might have been.”
GM: “Her appetites took her far from the lands of her birth. During the great uprising of progeny, she numbered among the Qābīlites who attacked Cairo’s elders. Though hers was not the hand that slew my sire, her actions facilitated his final death by emboldening others towards actions they might not otherwise have considered—filial piety and reverence for one’s ancestors are more ingrained in our culture than in yours. I am grateful for your part in righting an old wrong.”
Caroline: The reply gives Caroline pause for a moment, but only that.
“I am little surprised to hear she made enemies both near and far, but I would not deceive you, Emira: though I am gladdened her end has brought some measure of closure to an old wounds and that we are united by the satisfaction of it, I would have struck her down for many reasons all my own.”
“Striking her down was my last act in life. Had there been no Requiem to follow, I would have counted it no wasted life for that alone. That would have remained true even had I not spent an age in her care. The world is a better place in all ways for her destruction.”
Another pause. But then, this is a Kindred Maldonado has seen fit share secrets with enough, isn’t it? No doubt they have secrets, but few perhaps enough.
“That it gave a measure of peace to myself and others victim of her malice, and even that it unraveled a great plot of the seneschal and my sire’s foe only adds to the act, rather than defines it.”
GM: “I do not expect the hurts of a stranger half a world away had any bearing upon your actions that fateful night, Miss Malveaux. I am grateful for them nevertheless. The Catharite’s destruction has upset many things, some whose ripples touch even here, but I would be inclined to agree with your assessment. The world is a better place for the Catharite’s absence, even were I not inclined to believe she would have made a third attempt upon Philip’s unlife.”
Caroline: That’s interesting. It also further confirms her suspicion.
The Ventrue bows her head. “Then we are of a like mind, Emira, and you have added another piece to my puzzle. I did not believe my journey to the Dungeon and the seneschal’s harrowing of it to have occurred by chance. Nor all the events that preceded it.”
GM: “You are right to mistrust coincidence in the Jyhad, young one. My cousin has watched you for much of your mortal life. He has told me much of you. Though this is our first meeting, I have long felt as if I knew you well.”
Caroline: “I might only imagine what he might have said, Emira. When last he spoke candidly of me I was both humbled by his words and shamed by them. I suppose that is the best that any might feel before the eyes of those to whom their life is laid bare, both our triumphs and failures.”
GM: “Even the Holy Prophet, may peace be upon him, had to ask forgiveness for his sin. Your triumphs earned my cousin’s Embrace, but we are none of us without failings. His own pain him greatly, not least among them his betrayal of your sire’s trust.”
Fatimah speaks of Caroline’s guide as if he is not there. It is then that she notices he is not. She and the foreign elder walk alone through the mausoleum’s silent halls.
Caroline: “It is… a peculiar situation. To have been Embraced by one with the blood of another. Guided along a path by them, groomed by them. I was many nights into my Requiem before I had cause to speak to my sire.”
There’s a faint smile. “It’s almost as though he is my mother—at least among Kindred opposite my sire as father. He has been my sire in many ways.”
The smile fades. “It was difficult to see Prince Vidal’s reaction to my existence. How he treated your cousin, Emira.”
“A very hard man, even among us. I might hope for their future, but I fear the seneschal’s decision tore away what little trust he had left to give.”
GM: “Philip knew his choice would not pass without consequence. Though it pained his heart, he was prepared to accept that choice’s outcome. Great expectations rest upon your shoulders, childe.”
“I have counseled Philip, and he has concurred, that reconciliation is most probable when the burdens weighing upon your sire are finally lifted. When he sees that my cousin is still loyal, even when loyalty bears no fruits.”
“And when he sees the fruits born of Philip’s decision to grant you the Embrace. The betrayals and failures of your sire’s previous childer still wound him greatly.”
Caroline: “I do not fear the weight of those responsibilities or expectations, Emira.”
Perhaps a lie, but if so one she eagerly tells herself, and did all her life.
“For all of my short Requiem, failure has meant disgrace and death. In this, your cousin prepared me well for my sire’s scrutiny.”
“Throughout it, too, always have great odds stood against me. Greatness cannot come though only from succeeding when it is expected. I do not expect my sire will accept anything less.”
GM: “Nor will your city, Miss Malveaux. Your successes and failures will impact his covenant’s fortunes as well as his personal approval of you. But that fact is not new to you.”
“It may also be that no reconciliation is possible between your sire and my cousin,” Fatimah then states, returning to their prior topic. “I find it unlikely that Prince Vidal will forsake his responsibilities to his city, even should his rest last centuries. Philip has little taste for those same responsibilities and assumed them only for his love’s sake. For his love’s sake, he will rule as regent until you are of age. But it may then be Allah’s will that he simply move on.”
Fatimah’s glowing white eyes look pensive, but neither do her expressed thoughts feel like new ones to her.
“I would tell you something of my Istirja, you who are childe to my cousin in all save blood.”
Caroline recognizes ‘Istirja’ as a Muslim prayer for the dead: “Verily we belong to Allah, and verily to Him do we return.” The usage sounds similar to how she might reference her Requiem.
Caroline: A century. She’s seen well the powers a century of the Blood might offer. She’s seen too those of Kindred with true time in the Blood. The implication is clear: whether the seneschal’s plan succeeds or not, time alone will not give her the strength to weather what is to come. Whether it’s the implication the elder intends for her to draw is another matter entirely.
“I would welcome any wisdom your many years might provide a neonate, Emira,” Caroline entreats her.
GM: “I owe all that I am to my sire, King Sharif,” Fatimah begins. “For much of my mortal life, he watched me from afar and grew to care for me deeply. In olden times, sires Embraced progeny at younger ages than they do now. Life was briefer and kine were not permitted the luxury of an ‘adolescence’ between childhood and adulthood.”
Caroline: Caroline wonders passingly if the comment about luxury of adolescence is intended as a barb, but passes it off. Perhaps from another. Not from Fatimah. The elder has nothing to prove.
GM: “My Sharif allowed me to mature to the very old age of 32, so that I might experience life in all its richness and fullness before I joined him in everlasting night. Our clan is known for the harshness of our Embraces, but the night he took me as his bride numbers among the happiest of my unlife.”
“My Sharif did not desire a childe to mold to his will, but a lover and consort with whom he might share eternity. He had a dream that was to be medieval Cairo, and he wished to share every moment of that dream with an eternal love.”
Caroline: Her previous thought is swept away as Fatimah continues.
Lover and consort. It teases at things that can’t be. Things she has no reason to think of now, but can’t escape. Not now. Not ever. It’s always there, lingering at the edge of her consciousness like a dull ache. It doesn’t actively hurt unless she brushes against it, but she’s always mindful of it.
A sad smile slips onto her face as she nods along with Fatimah’s tale.
GM: “Sharif and I established ourselves in Cairo shortly after the city’s conquest by the Fatimids. Under my Sharif’s guidance, their general laid out a plan for a new, enclosed capitol city in the name of the Shi’a caliph. The city would be an exclusive enclave of walled palaces, parade grounds, and private gardens—a notion copied some years later by the Chinese in their construction of the Forbidden City. My Sharif’s aim was to turn Cairo into the center of Islamic learning, if not the center of the entire faith, where the devout could come to learn, pray and study in peace, free from the chaos of the outside world. The Fatimids built the world’s first university, Al-Azhar, as well as many other palaces, mosques, and bathhouses.”
“When the walled city and all its wonders were completed, the Fatimid caliph himself traveled to take up residence, leaving a viceroy behind in North Africa. When the caliph arrived, he renamed the city Al-Qahira, ‘the Triumphant,’ and Cairo was born. My Sharif could finally extend his open invitation to the Ashirra to come and partake of the greatest city in Islam. He welcomed all those who would pray inside the walls of Al-Qahira, and evicted those who would taint his vision of faith. He especially deplored the Followers of Set, who befouled all they touched with their selfish desires. My Sharif’s dream soon became a reality, as Suleiman ibn Abdullah himself—the first Qābīlite convert to Islam at the hands of the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him—deigned to make his haven within the city’s walls.”
“If you would know more of the Fatimids’ glories, you may find them in a history book. Even after Egypt was conquered twice again by the Ayyubids and Mamlukes, my sire raised me up as his queen. I knew happiness that few of Qābīl’s children were privileged to feel.”
Caroline: Where you start off is often a measure of where you begin.
Many thoughts skirt across Caroline’s mind. Not among them any self-pity.
GM: “When my Sharif granted me the right to take a childe of my own, for such has only recently been made the prerogative of princes, I made my choice carefully. After many years, I selected a young man of noble bearing whom I felt would be a credit to our clan and a worthy heir to King Sharif’s legacy.”
“I courted him over many years as my sire had done. I Embraced him when he was a man grown and had experienced mortal life in all its fullness. He was to be a gift to my Sharif. All that my sire gave to me, I would give unto another.”
“In doing so I committed a grave error, for I had Embraced too wisely and too well. My midnight assignations with my would-be progeny resulted in the one variable to which I was blind: he fell in love with me, as I had with my own sire.”
“I assumed my childe would grow accustomed to the reality of his situation. My heart had belonged to Sharif since before his grandfathers’ grandfathers were motes in their own grandfathers’ eyes.”
“He did not. As the years passed, he grew ever more jealous of his grandsire and desired me for his own.”
Caroline: Is it a cautionary tale? A worry the elder has, that she will tear down the seneschal for her want of the prince? But then, doesn’t a part of her want just that? The worst part of her?
Part of her is angry, hurt even. She wants to break down, to tearfully declare with indignation she never wanted this, the aching need for her sire’s presence always there, always pulling her. That he demanded it of her. That as with all things, she was given no choice. He bound her to him.
But she knows that however hesitant she was in that moment, part of her did want it. Always wanted it. Still wants it in the most perverse and vile way, the kind that makes her want to scrub her skin raw when she thinks about it even as it sets fire to her inside. This raw, disgusting need so poorly hidden in everything she does.
“Some things cannot be. Those that cannot accept them will bring only woe down on the world.”
That at least, she can accept. A year from now or a century, she knows whatever her weakness, her sire has none of it.
GM: “Some things cannot,” Fatimah concurs. “Yet great woes are rarely wrought by one individual’s hands alone.”
“When the Anarch Revolt crept into our city from Europe—spurred on by such rebels as the Catharite—Munther seized his chance. He rallied a pack of disillusioned neonates and struck at my Sharif at his manor in the old walled city. My sire fought valiantly and removed every attacker’s head save that of my childe’s. Yet in the end, he could not withstand their numbers. My Sharif lay dead.”
“His demise marked the end of an era in Cairo for the Muslim children of Qābīl. Mullah Suleiman quietly left the city not long thereafter. Lamenting in a final speech to the collected Ashirra, Suleiman remarked, ‘The glory of Cairo has well and truly gone.’”
“But what care did I then have for Cairo’s glories? My Sharif lay dead. I had never known such pain. All our years of happiness were as a dagger plunged into my heart. Worse, it was I who had slain my love. In seeking to honor his legacy, I had sired the instrument of his destruction.”
“I wept and cursed Allah that He would inflict such misery upon me. I looked to the future and saw only an eternity of loneliness without my Sharif.”
“I did not believe I could carry such a burden. I wished nothing more than to greet the dawn.”
Caroline: “I’m sorry, Emira.”
Is that the right thing to say? How do you encompass the loss of centuries of love like that? The words feel paltry.
GM: “All-too inadequate words for one in the depths of such grief, childe, but they are no longer necessary. My Sharif perished long ago.”
“Time alone does not heal all wounds, but it may ameliorate many.”
Caroline: She hopes that’s true.
GM: “Philip comforted me during my grief. His words and presence were a balm upon my hurts.”
“I resolved that I would not greet the dawn, nor seek vengeance against my childe. I would remain true to my sire’s legacy of faith.”
Caroline: Caroline remains silent until it’s clear the elder has finished.
GM: “I continued to claim domain in Banu al-Lam’a as Sharif’s descendant. I opposed the Sabbat and cemented influence among both the Camarilla and Ashirra of Egypt. I have shepherded our khitta through tribulations that now fill history books. I lead the city’s Shi’a Ashirra in prayer and encourage them to maintain good relations with all other Ashirra. Ibn Ja’far, perhaps the most devout Sunni in Cairo, counts me among his closest allies. When Prince Bey instituted his Consultative Council, I stepped into the role on my clan’s behalf to their unanimous acclaim. I number among the most respected of our city’s elders and primogen.”
“My childe remains in Cairo too, now an elder in his own right and a leader among the Sabbat. Though our clan hunts all who name themselves antitribu, I am exempt by order of the Friends of the Night. I have many friends among my clanmates, both near and far. Violent action against me is not permitted without a proper ruling from the Courts of Blood—a highly unlikely occurrence. Although younger clanmates within the Sabbat eye my vitae hungrily, many others look to me for inspiration. I receive periodic correspondence from secret well-wishers the world over who support my independent stance.”
Caroline: All but confirmation of the truth of Smith’s words?
GM: “My childe has raised no hand in violence against me. I have spoken to his own childe and found him to be a man of honor. I have told him the story of his great-grandsire, and I believe that he, too, will raise no hand in violence against me, nor ever act against my interests. My grandchilde tells me that he has spread King Sharif’s story to his own childer, and they to their own progeny. Sharif’s name will not soon die on his descendants’ lips.”
“I am proud of what I have accomplished by remaining true to my beliefs. I am proud of the honor I have done my sire’s memory. I am proud to honor his memory even before the childe of a Ventrue prince from half a world away.”
Fatimah looks ahead of her.
Caroline: Questions die on Caroline’s lips. So too does the search for meaning. There are many lessons to be found in the elder’s tale, but she’s no longer certain that was the purpose.
GM: Fatimah assumes her knees before a sarcophagus. She tenderly strokes her hands along its surface.
“Sharif’s bones lie here still. I gathered them from his palace. Here, in what many name the second greatest mausoleum in the world, I have made his eternal resting place.”
Caroline: The image of the elder kneeling before her sire’s sarcophagus leaves Caroline lightheaded.
GM: Fatimah gazes away from Caroline and towards the sarcophagus as she speaks. If there is grief on her face, it is as faint as the features of a statue worn away by lifetime upon lifetime of sand.
“On occasion, I come here to sleep with my Sharif. I remember our nights together and my heart swells with love. I am old and will never again know such love as his.”
“Yet as I lie upon my sire’s resting place, I am reminded that my love is small. I am reminded that for all my power and accomplishments, I am as nothing before Allah.”
“‘Indeed, to Allah belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth; He gives life and causes death. And you have not besides Allah any protector or any helper.’”
Caroline: “You are, I think, everything my sire might wish me to be, Emira,” Caroline answers after a moment.
And she means it. Penitent. Pious. Devoted. Loyal. Accomplished. Mighty. The virtues of her sire.
“I look upon this scene now, though, and it terrifies me.”
And it does, for she sees here her own future. Bound by faith, serving a memory of a ghost even less tangible than the lifetimes Fatimah spent with her sire. Proud of words spoken by others more than deed. Chained to her sire for all eternity. His slave, whether he wakes in a century or never again.
Satisfied, even gladdened by that.
GM: Fatimah regally reassumes her feet and turns to face Caroline.
“It is well that you are afraid, childe.”
“To have gazed upon this scene when I was as new to the night as you would have seemed a fate worse than death.”
Caroline: Worse than death? No… perhaps not anymore. Not with her sisters, and her mother. She knows the price of her death.
But it makes this vision of her future no less terrible.
GM: “Perhaps there are loved ones whose losses you fear.”
Caroline: Uncertainties, fears, inadequacies nag at her. There are many things she might wish to confide, but the Ventrue bites her tongue.
GM: “I would counsel you to prepare yourself for that night.”
Caroline: “Klu ma sha’ allh,” Caroline answers after a moment.
(“All is as God wills it.”)
Including my fate.
GM: “Yet neither did I bring you here solely to caution you as to eternity’s pitilessness.”
“Your Istirja is your own, as my Istirja is my own. You have listened to my tale. You may take whatever lessons you choose to heed from it. I hope you have taken many. Instruction is a kinder teacher than experience.”
“The only lesson I would impress upon you now is that time humbles all save Allah. All your plans and loves and ambitions are as nothing before Him, and rarely will they unfold precisely as you wish them to. The only thing you may truly control over your Istirja is yourself: your own decisions, your own principles, and your own faith. Though your beliefs are not as mine, I would counsel you to look towards your Christ when times are trying. You may find that faith alone is all that remains to you.”
Caroline: Caroline pauses at that for a long moment.
“I am grateful for the tale of your Istirja, Emira. As you have come to know much of me through the words of Seneschal Maldonato, so too do I feel I have come to know much the same through your words. Too did I ask for wisdom, and there was much to be found.”
“I fear for your cousin, and am grateful he retains a confidant, great though the journey is to speak to her. I have known him as a man of great purpose and will, and too of faith, but this year has both cost and demanded much of him. I have cost and demanded much of him.”
“I believe that much of what God holds in His plan for me may echo your own Istirja. I spoke truly when I said it terrified me, but so too do I see there grace and purpose and will if that is the path laid out before me.
“Your cousin too calls to faith. My sire demands it. I cannot but heed the wisdom of my elders in that matter.”
But she knows too that in this, in part, the elder is wrong too. Her place as her sire’s childe in mirror of that as her father’s daughter cannot but be divine providence sufficient to give her certitude of faith, but it is not solitude of faith. No, never solitude.
Even here, a world away, she can feel it, that other thing that slides across the edge of her conscious mind at all times. That other bond to seven strings ink black and cloyingly sweet. The one that gave her no true fear when the seneschal warned that to lose his hand might cast her adrift. She has something else too, and she can always find her way home to it.
GM: “This past year has been trying for my cousin,” Fatimah concurs. “I know much of the pain he now feels. Though his spirit is not so wounded as your sire’s, and though he will not countenance to display weakness before you, the burdens upon his shoulders are great. He is like unto any man. Cut him and he will bleed.”
“My cousin killed you and abandoned you. Though he saved you from a fate more terrible than death, and placed your sire’s vitae upon your lips, he has also been the architect of much of your ignorance and suffering.”
“What feelings does this stir in you?”
Caroline: The bluntness of the question is a surprise, but it is not the first time she’s considered it. She also considers lying for a moment. But who else might she ever confess these feelings to?
“Conflicted ones, Emira. Those at war with each other even. I think they’ve always been so—whether it was respect and fear at my earliest meetings or despair and hope when he sentenced me to death but told me of my sire.”
She takes a short breath. Her voice is almost tender. “For his harrowing of hell for me, knowing it spelled his doom, I shall always love him.”
“For casting me into ignorance to suffer, for making me a pariah to my sire, for looming over me as executioner for all of my Requiem, I shall always hate him,” she continues, her voice grinding out with anger.
A pause. "More than anything else, I think I pity him. And… "
She shakes her head. “He has placed so many of his hopes and dreams and expectations upon me. He has been the most constant star in my Requiem, one that for much of it I tried to steer by. He intends to remain the brightest in the night for a century to come.”
She pauses, more for the thorniness of the topic than for uncertainty.
“I described him earlier as my mother among the Damned, in contrast to my sire. I suppose, in that way, it’s a relationship I am familiar with.”
“But that does not mean I know what we are to be to each other in the future. I mean him no ill, but I do not know if I can be all that he hopes for me to be.”
GM: “What makes you doubt this?” asks Fatimah.
Caroline: “I see doom on the path he has set before us.”
GM: “He has also forseen doom in your futures. Many dooms. Though he will strive to avert them, and to safeguard your sire’s kingdom through his slumber, success cannot be guaranteed.”
“Do you believe you will fail, or do you merely fear failure’s possibility?”
Caroline: “For all the evils I would lay against him, I believe the seneschal a better man than I, Emira. I think his foes will use his morality against him, to destroy him, in a way tempered now by my sire’s cold fury. I believe my abduction was only the first of such traps laid before him, to draw him to his doom.”
“His plans, as I have seen them, rely too much upon his strength while making too small an accounting of his weakness.”
GM: “I too believe my cousin to be an individual of good character, Miss Malveaux. Yet what you name a weakness I would consider a strength. A more pragmatic Qābīlite might have abandoned you to your fate in the Catharite’s realm and Embraced your cousin Adam, or perhaps another.”
“Would this have been to your sire’s greater benefit?”
Caroline: “Had he been slain the kingdom would have crumbled, Emira. Laid against that, my suffering and death matters little.”
She represses a shiver. It’s easier to say that than to think of it, to think of an eternity committed to the lowest levels of the Dungeon.
A nauseating flash of memory of a monster with black flesh and yellow teeth holding her bloody intestines in his hand as he sodomized her, gripping his cock through her guts as he fucked her with something inhumanly long and slithering, skitters across her mind. For a moment she can almost smell his fetid breath in her face, demanding she watch. She’d already begged for death so many times when the seneschal arrived. She wonders if madness might not have taken her. Wonders sometimes if it hasn’t anyway.
“I do not deny that his character is the best part of him, nor that it calls to righteousness. I only balance it against centuries of knowing the power to right wrongs and the vast responsibilities he carries.”
GM: “My cousin might have been slain, and the consequences for your sire’s house would have been calamitous. Yet who met their end within that fell pit?”
“One of Antoine Savoy’s most potent allies is now ash by your hand, and the consequences of that action are equally calamitous for your sire’s foes. The Catharite was a plague upon your sire’s house for centuries. She raised Pascual’s childe to his present stature. Her plots ran deep. There is no telling what future woes her actions may have spawned.”
“That triumph, as well as the triumph of your survival and Embrace, was achieved through what many would consider weakness.”
“There are many who believe I should have slain my childe for his murder of my sire. Such a thing was within my power to do.”
“Yet in sparing his Istirja, I have a grandchilde whose existence I consider a credit to my Sharif’s memory, and who will answer his grandsire’s call when she has need of aid. This too, I achieved through ‘weakness.’”
“Allah sees all we do. I have faith that He sees fit to reward righteous action. I have faith that when He does not, such action still serves His will.”
Caroline: Caroline bites her lip again. The bleeding edge between faith and folly, between chance and providence.
“A good is an end unto itself.”
GM: “That is my cousin’s conviction, as well as mine own. Our Istirjas have persisted. The Catharite’s has not.”
“Yet if faith in the Almighty is not sufficient to give you faith in my cousin, know the Qabilat al-Khayal are deservedly reputed for our ruthlessness. I know that you, too, have experienced this at my cousin’s hands. The spirit of your Embrace ran truer to our clan’s than your sire’s.”
Caroline: A grim smile.
GM: “I know, too, that he was prepared to end your Istirja with his own hands, even after the perils he braved to save you from the Catharite’s.”
“Some say ruthlessness and not shadow is our clan’s true deathright.”
Caroline: “Trust has long become a stranger to me, but your words give me comfort, Emira.”
GM: “I am pleased by this. Your comfort and prosperity is my cousin’s.”
Caroline: “I have felt as though I have been alone on an island or a boat at sea for many years: an existence in which all troubles were mine to resolve. I suspect it will take time to grow accustomed to it not being so.”
GM: “Time favors you in this, childe, as in many things.”
“You say you shall always love and hate my cousin for his actions towards you. Should you find it within yourself to forgive him for them, I believe such words would be a balm upon his spirit and ease the burdens he carries.”
Caroline: The horror of her first feeding. The shame of her first murder. The bone-deep humiliation of being forced to strip before onlookers. The snap of the whip in McGinn’s mansion. The bite of Kelford’s blade. The public shaming of Donovan’s ghouls. The back-breaking despair as her family disowned her, call after call of vitriol and hate. The existential terror for month after month of a death sentence hanging over her head. The look in Claire’s eyes as the darkness swallowed her forever. The fury of her sire at her very existence.
The child within her cannot help but lay the memories in comparison to the ‘wonderful’ night of Fatimah’s Embrace. Her centuries with her sire as her lover. What right does she have to ask Caroline to forgive, she who knows of Caroline’s suffering only as words?
“As you say, Emira, time may favor such a thing. For now I may serve him, learn from him, and even care for him, but forgiveness… "
Her voice cracks. "He destroyed me. Down to my last inch. He spared me from a fate worse than death to deliver unto me another I would have more surely faced death than accepted. It may yet be that I am reborn, that I might be more than the disowned daughter, disgraced heiress, damned soul, ruined neonate, and unwanted childe. Indeed, the time of changes may be at hand… "
“I wish I could give him that comfort. I see clearly the burdens he bears. They tear at my heart all the worse to hear that I might lift some of them, were I greater of spirit. But it would be a lie tonight. A better person might be capable of doing so… perhaps my cousin, who he favored for the Embrace. But for what little I may still be, I am too much my father’s daughter.”
GM: Fatimah’s placid face looks little surprised.
“Do you regret your Embrace, childe? Would you have preferred a natural death and that your cousin now be your sire’s childe?”
Caroline: “My Embrace has had scant opportunity to offer joy, and much to offer pain, Emira,” Caroline sidesteps.
“If it was to be my cousin or I, better I, for damnation was my due.” She looks down at her hands. “Better too in the eyes of God that I be a waking damned with some chance of redemption come judgement day, who might still serve his plan.”
“Selfishly, though, I spoke truthfully. Had I known all that would transpire from the moment of my embrace onward, I would have chosen death in that moment over ruin and shame.”
“Tonight it is more complicated. A year ago my death would have been a meaningless thing. Now my death would mean the death of hopes and dreams. The ruination of lives. The rise of darker forces.”
“It doesn’t matter what I regret, or what I would have wanted. I did not get to decide, and the consequences of that decision are not all clear to me even now. What matters if the here, the now, the decisions that were made and the consequences of them.”
“I will make the most of my Requiem. I will strive to climb to great heights. I will strike down the foes of my sire. I will seek happiness and joy where it may be found. And perhaps I shall look back on this conversation as one made in all the naivety of youth, with no inkling of what greatness is to come.”
“That is what matters. The rest are insidious thoughts that can only haunt and bring misery. What might have been cannot bring you joy, only what may yet be.”
GM: “Choice remains even to those who regret their Istirjas,” replies Fatimah. “They may greet the dawn. Or they may endure the night. But they must commit themselves wholly to one path or the other, lest their doubt poison all good works they touch.”
“I am pleased you have also reached this conclusion. Philip had long believed your feelings on your Istirja to be deeply divided.”
“I am saddened that you are unable to ease his pain in his time of need. I will pray that you find that strength.”
“I will pray that you find it soon. Events move swiftly around you both. Circumstance may not permit you to speak words you later wish to have spoken.”
Caroline: Those words are a dagger.
How many unspoken words does she count now that will forever remain such? Volumes.
“Death is easier than duty, Emira. All you must do is give up. But if the seneschal has spoken anything of me, it must be that giving up is not in my nature. I have never taken the easy path.”
GM: “He has spoken such of you, Miss Malveaux.” Fatimah’s glowing eyes stare into the distance. “He is soon to return, and there are plans for the future we would involve you in. But the minutes until then are our own. What would you speak with me of?”
Caroline: The answer to that question is obvious—it tugs at her attention during every waking moment.
“The seneschal spoke of you before my sire in passing, Emira. He spoke of your meetings past. I would beg, indulge me that tale or your appraisal of him in that time.”
GM: “I believe him a different Kindred then than my cousin has described him in recent years,” Fatimah replies. “Hot with rage for his slain sire and broodmates. But his was a fury born of righteousness rather than hate.”
“I found him chivalrous and honorable, as his culture reckoned such things. He offered to bring me my childe’s head for his murder of my sire. It deeply offended his sensibilities for a grandson to have slain his grandfather.”
“His devotion to Hardestadt’s vision ran equally deep. He believed to the core of his being that the Camarilla’s revival was necessary and just, at a time when many doubted this fact, and when even fewer shared the depth of his conviction. Time has proven that conviction to be correct.”
“I felt little of the hatred for my faith that Philip described him as harboring for the Vodouisants of your city.”
Caroline: Caroline listens with rapt attention. “He sounds hardly recognizable.”
GM: “Then perhaps he has changed more than my cousin’s tales led me to believe.”
Caroline: “The only passion I have seen in him has been rage… but my meetings with him have had little occasion than to provoke anything but rage from him.”
She pauses. “Undoubtedly you have seen many elders fall into torpor and rise from it, Emira. Have they managed to recapture their vigor?”
GM: “I would ask that question of you, Miss Malveaux. My cousin last entered the sleep of ages for a century. I, too, have slept when my blood grew thick and heavy, and I have spent more of my Istirja in slumber than he. Do you believe us vigorous?”
Caroline: “I do,” she answers.
“And in that I find hope.”
GM: “His rest is long overdue. Nastasio asked too much of him to assume a foreign city’s princedom. Others might have served.”
Caroline: “Others might have failed,” Caroline observes, a hint of pride in her voice.
GM: “You may be right, Miss Malveaux. Little purpose is served in ruminating over what may have been, in any case.”
Caroline: “And the seneschal? Has he always been as he is now?”
She smiles, almost shyly. “I apologize, Emira, if the topics seem trivial. They have dominated my Requiem to date, and will likely do so to come, but I feel I know them at times only as figures of mystery and fear.”
GM: “Time has changed him less than your sire,” Fatimah answers. “His own sire brought him to al-Qāhirah long ago, so that he might become acquainted with his kin throughout the greater Ashirra. He knew my sire, and I his. He was then a childe learning at his elders’ feet. Our early relationship was not one of equals.”
“My opinion of his character was favorable. He was quiet, courteous, and less eager to learn than quietly attentive. His mind was a fertile sponge for his elders’ wisdom.”
“His Embrace was an atypical one. As I have said, adolescence was a luxury not permitted to the kine in those nights. He was a man grown with children and grandchildren. He had seen much of life by the time of his death. He was older then than even I.”
Caroline: “I begin to sense a theme,” Caroline observes. “For my sire was not Embraced in his youth either.”
GM: "His sire Embraced many childer. Many were young. Some, by chance or providence, were older. "
Caroline: “But he did not. I know of only one. Nor your cousin, Emira,” Caroline observes.
GM: “I shall leave Philip to speak to you of your sire’s past,” Fatimah answers. “As to my cousin, he has Embraced but once, and regrets that choice to this night.”
Caroline: “You have given me more than I might have hoped, Emira,” Caroline answers gratefully.
Hope, of what may come.